Europe 9 – Galway International Oyster Festival

Galway International Oyster Festival (1)

Where?

Galway, Ireland

When?

Last full weekend in September

How long?

3 days

Ireland’s longest-running and best gourmet extravaganza, the Galway Interntaional Oyster Festival celebrates the arrival of the new oyster season with a three-day furore of drinking, dancing and crustacean guzzling. Most of the official events are based in the enormous red- and-white striped festival marquee, specially erected by the picturesque mouth of the River Corrib, next to small Claddagh harbour, but it’s just as much fun to join the informal carousing and guzzling that takes place across the city centre, as visitors and residents alike attempt to tackle the Guinness Oyster Trail.

If you’ve ever wondered what the Irish craic was all about, you’ll find it here, in glorious technicolour, as you’re whirled away into the fun, madness and mayhem of one of the greatest Irish pub-crawls ever devised.

History

The first Galway International Oyster Festival was held

in 1954, the brainchild of Brian Collins, the manager of Galway’s Great Southern Hotel – then the largest hotel in the west of Ireland – who saw it as a way to extend the tourist season into September. Collins also spotted an opportunity to promote Galway’s native oysters to a wider market and to capitalize on the city’s reputation as the centre of the arts in Ireland. Convincing an Irish brewer, one Arthur Guinness, to sponsor the event, also helped.

If Collins was the brains behind the festival, Paddy Burke was its heart. He organized the opening and presentation of the 3500 oysters that were consumed during the first festival, and his eponymous pub, in the middle of Clarenbridge village, nine miles outside Galway, entertained the hundred or so visitors all afternoon. Come evening, the dignitaries returned to the Great Southern for dinner while the rest of the rabble raised hell in Paddy’s bar until the early hours. There have been some refinements since – a striped marquee has housed other special events, including the World Oyster Opening Championships, since 1968 – but the spirit of Burke’s original Guinness- and oyster- fuelled bash remains.

In recent years, the event has attracted an increasingly international audience, and in 1984 the marquee and ceremonies were transferred to their present location on the outskirts of Galway City and the rest of the carousing to Galway’s numerous pubs.

The opening parade

The opening parade at noon on Saturday is a must-see and, unlike many of the other organized events, it doesn’t cost a dime. Just after midday in Eyre Square, Galway’s mayor cracks open the first oyster of the season, knocks it back in one gulp, and declares the festival officially open. A parade of marching bands, vintage cars, oyster openers, dignitaries and oyster “Pearls” – a dozen of the town’s beauties, young and old – then make their way down the main street, past the thousands of locals and visitors lining the street comers, pub doorways, and the banks of the River Corrib.

The World Oyster Opening Championship

The parade’s destination is the festival marquee, and more specifically the World Oyster Opening Championship, which, for the oyster aficionados who come from far and wide, is the highlight of the estival. Tickets cost €100 – you need to buy them in advance from the festival website – but this includes oyster tasting, a sumptuous seafood lunch and a ringside seat for the Championships at 2pm.

As soon as the parade has disappeared inside, usually by around 1pm, the barrels of Guinness are tapped, the champagne corks fly, and the oysters are shucked from their shells. Up to fifteen countries compete in the Championship, with teams from the USA, Canada, Scandinavia, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the UK and, of course, Ireland – the local representative is chosen at the Irish Oyster Opening Championship, held on the previous Thursday evening at Quays Bar on Quay Street (8pm; free). The objective is to open thirty native oysters as quickly as possible, but time is not the only criterion – points are also awarded (or deducted) for the final presentation of the tray of oysters. In case you were wondering just how long it takes a pro to do this, the 2005 World Oyster Opening Champion, the aptly named Oystein Reinsborg from Norway, needed only 2min 43sec to complete the task – though this is still some way off former world champion Willie Morans’ amazing time of 1 min 31sec, set in 1977.

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